When I started out in consulting, I decided early on that I would seek out a mentor. I must have been like the little bird in the children’s book “Are You My Mother?” that goes from animal to animal seeking out its mother. I had in my mind that there would be one person that would extol his or her wisdom to help me to launch my career. After a few years, here is what my mentors have taught me:
What my mentors have taught me
Mentors are human, not heroes
One of my first designated mentors was someone I idolized. I hung on every word he said and thought he was infallible. I soon found that he made mistakes and wasn’t the erudite I thought he was. I was disappointed and thought I had made a mistake in selecting a mentor. But he was still a great manager and I still respected him for his abilities. I just needed to accept that a mentor can screw up and still be respected.
Have multiple mentors and combine ideas from each of them
Once I realized that my mentor wasn’t the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi sent down from on-high to bestow his wisdom upon me, I realized that there are many people around me that I can learn from. I could draw upon one’s advice on one day and someone else’s on another day.
You can learn from anti-mentors
I’ve worked with managers and people that I didn’t like or respect. I have a philosophy that you can be a good manager without being an asshole. But I’ve known people with a quite different philosophy that disrespect their subordinates or act in unethical ways. I’ve observed these people and from them I’ve learned how not to act and how not to treat others.
Don’t tell a mentor that they are a mentor
I once told a colleague that I considered them a mentor. From that point forward, our relationship changed. It seemed to go to his head. It was as if we couldn’t be friends anymore because he had assumed this role of being my mentor. He had to give me advice every chance he got. It got very tiresome and I got to the point where I would avoid being around him because I got tired of the constant spray of advice. After that, I would ask mentors advice or learn by observation, but I never formalized the role with them.
Be your own person
You can get all the advice you want from as many mentors as you choose. But you have to filter for yourself what works best for you. Just because you asked someone for advice doesn’t mean you have to follow it. All advice is optional. When I was a senior in college, I was fortunate enough to have three job offers to consider. I went to my number one mentor, my father, to ask his advice. Although one of the offers would have kept me close to my parent’s home, he refused to give me advice. Instead, he told me to think about the things that were important to me and to decide for myself. He helped me make my own decision rather than giving me his opinion. A true mentor will resist giving you advice, but will ask you the right questions to make you think so that you make decisions for yourself.
It’s a good practice to identify mentors at any stage of your career to help you steer your career. But mentors are guides, not a replacement for using your own judgment. You need to decide whether their advice is worth following based on your own values and the direction you want your career to advance.
What have you learned that your mentors have taught you?
If you would like to learn more about working in consulting, get Lew’s book Consulting 101: 101 Tips for Success in Consulting at Amazon.com
As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms.